Advent.2 — The Fun in Dysfunctional —How to Deal with Family at Christmas

by admin on December 9, 2012

Reflections for 9 December 2012
Matthew 1: 18-25

Today we continue our discussion on bringing the fun in dysfunctional. Last week we talked about thinking of an alternative way to observe Christmas without being a Grinch. Today let’s consider how to deal with the fun of families.

An old man in Miami calls up his son in New York and says, “Listen, your mother and I are getting divorced. Forty-five years of misery is enough.”

“Dad, what are you talking about?” the son screams.

“We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” he says. “I’m sick of her face, and I’m sick of talking about this, so call your sister in Chicago and tell her,” and he hangs up.

Now, the son is worried. So he calls up his sister. She says, “Like hell they’re getting divorced!” and calls her father immediately. “You’re not getting divorced! Don’t do another thing; the two of us are flying home tomorrow to talk about this. Until then, don’t call a lawyer, don’t file a paper, DO YOU HEAR ME?” and she hangs up.

The old man turns to his wife and says “Okay, they’re coming for Christmas and paying their own airfares.”

George Burns Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

No way out of it—we all have one. Holiday season can cause some of the most painful interactions the whole year. As a student of family systems I’m constantly amazed at how weddings, funerals, and holidays bring out either the best or the worst of human behavior. How do you deal with that?

We know that domestic violence is on the increase this time of year. Is it nerves, stress, and societal craziness?

Here are a couple of ideas I want to share and then a reframing of the situation in light of the story of Joseph and his annunciation.

You might remember the children’s stores as told by that fictional character Uncle Remus (made famous by Walt Disney when some of us were kids). One such story was of Briar Rabbit and the infamous tar baby. The tar baby was so gluey and sticky that when rabbit punches it, his fists get helplessly stuck. He tried to kick his way free, trapping his feet; then finishes off the tar baby with an infuriated head butt that renders rabbit utterly helpless.

Nothing more sticky in the world than a dysfunctional family. And I use that loosely. Family dynamics might be a better word. The process of interaction in your family—think in terms of that. How is it that only after 15 minutes of a holiday reunion—interacting with your parents or kids—that you’re hopelessly enmeshed in the same old crazy making?

Two factors are constantly at work in our families—and they carry over into all relationships. The need for separateness—and the drive for togetherness.

Strategy One. Give up hope. Hear this prayer by Abby Sher “God grant me the ability to change the things I cannot accept.” I’m going to be nice, why can’t the rest of you be that way? We often want and expect different behavior out of others. I’m not asking much—socially appropriate behavior now and then, and how about some apologies for the damage caused by you over the past year? It would be nice if June and Ward Clever were sitting at the table this year.

When we carry the hope that everyone will act according to the standards we have set up in our minds you can see that old tar baby just sitting there waiting for us to whack it. Before you get the family gathering together take a few moments to sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they would be like. Then prepare to accept them even if they don’t measure up to your expectations. If not, you’ll hand over your choices to them.

Several months ago when we entered into our teaching on forgiveness we noted that forgiveness was giving up all hope for a better past. Perhaps this first strategy is really about putting this gracious act of forgiveness on the family agenda.

Strategy Two. Contact not closeness. Contact, not togetherness. Some families major in enmeshment we all have to eat the same thing, do everything like grandma did, don’t make aunt Margaret upset. Once again the theme from last week: if momma ain’t happy….. Anxiety, guilt, stress, unhappiness—these are all contagious. Contact not closeness is a way to stay out of infections.
You can be in the same room, even smile and talk but you don’t have to carry the burden of someone else’s unhappiness. Sometimes 15 minutes is enough time of relating.

But when you do relate, be emotionally intelligent. Politeness and respect go a long way. I’ve said to anxious people who are fretting over family stuff—have a plan of entrance and exit. You will be amazed at how effective just a polite: “Hi, nice to see you” is over an emotionally ladened interaction. Respect other’s boundaries, but don’t get glued up on the tar baby when they can’t do the same for you.

Strategy Three. Be responsible for you. You alone are in charge of your decision-making ability. There is no gun at your head. Think of what your automatics are and how they work for you. Do that AHEAD of any planed visit. What are your triggers? How do you allow others to set you off? The only way to avoid getting stuck in other people’s craziness is to follow Melody Beattie’s advice: “Unhook from their systems by refusing to try to control them.” In other words…stay grounded in your guiding principles that you have established through thoughtful reflection, prayer and meditation.

If out of your soul-searching you know that your mother’s opinions don’t work for you—as is grandpa’s bigotry—your sister’s new religions—your cousin’s alcoholism—stay with the truth of your principles and core beliefs (which I hope are grounded in Jesus’ Kingdom directives). This is called self-differentiation and is the chief task of adulthood — and Christian discipleship.

You are responsible for you. Have you been deeply wounded by your family. And who hasn’t? It is your responsibility to work on healing and forgiveness.

Strategy Four. Remember you’re part of your family and you bring a lot to the table too. Here one of the most effective and fun things to do is be an observer. Roberta Gilbert MD calls it: putting on your lab coat. This is not about carrying around a clip board and being detached. It is about keeping your eyes open (and mouth shut!) and watching the process of your family’s interaction. Too much of the time we get engrossed in content: he said, she said and miss the point of how all that gets done. It is the process where deep emotions get formed and lived out.

Does your family avoid all unpleasantness at any cost? Is the object a Christmas dinner to hear grandpa bellyache about how terrible life is? Do people always huddle with the same people and nitpick about others? Keep on eye on all that and what can you do to bring more emotional intelligence to the table?

Also consider what are your emotional needs at this present time? We always act with purpose. Out of loneliness and sadness we might get more clingy and demanding. Be aware.

Strategy Five. Maybe this is all a God-thing. Consider Matthew’s story of Joseph today. The annunciation of the Savior of the word in terms of a family predicament. Talk about the upset of so-called “family values.” It is absolutely interesting to me and intriguing that both Judaism and Christianity talk about God’s work in the world in terms of dysfunctional families. None of this is according to our higher standards of achievement. God is as real as the family.

So what about Joseph? Of all the characters in the Gospel stories here is a guy who really has just a bit part, a cameo appearance. And yet as the father of Jesus he acts out all four of these strategies. More than anything else he offers a fifth one God is in the mix of this mess.

Joe hears that his son will have a common name, a common birth, but an uncommon and extraordinary mission: He will save this people from their sins.

—He will save from all unrighteousness: depending on our human ingenuity to solve the world’s problems.
—He will save from all that splits and severs us from God and each other.
—He will save us from meaningless existence to a life filled with direction and purpose.

Of course, there’s always that human question, that question still lurking in the back of Joe’s mind: Oh yeah, how’s this going to happen?

That why more than any other gospel, it’s Matthew who specializes in sharing how Jesus saves:

—calls from an old life
—invites to a new relationship
—walks with in discipleship

Joe didn’t have to be part of this mess—but he did. He could have saved himself lots of trouble—but he didn’t.

Which remind us of God’s choice—he entered into the messiness of our lives. Born to an unwed teenage mom in some homeless shelter.

Most of us have stories in our families that we more or less choose not to talk about because they are source of shame. Stories of messiness, stories that don’t make it with Ward and June Cleaver.

—our teenage kids get pregnant.
—someone gets divorced
—a good guy makes a bad mistake.
—incest and abuse are a family tradition

But when God chose to enter into the world in a very complicated, unacceptable by moral standards, God embraces our messiness and family dysfunctions and proves that messiness can be redeemed. That’s God’s better plan.

Too often we seek to deny the desperation, anxiety and fear of our very human living and we fail to realize that God is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves—redeem anyone and any situation. That’s nothing short of transforming the world.

At Christmas we usually think of mother and child. Here’s a different picture—from one dad to another. Joe’s life changed and so can ours, and so will that of our family.

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